Black. White. In Foshan, a southern industrial city that sits at the heart of the wealthiest region in China, black and white are the colors of its two vital blood vessels, Fen River and Dongping River.
Dongping combines the words “east” and “peace.” As it narrowly escapes the industrial part of the city, the river bears in its ebbs and flows a tranquil, soulful green. The translucent, soothing water is dubbed by the locals with the adjective qing, a synonym for “white” in Chinese. Fen River, on the other hand, is more aggressive in nature. It hits the main port of the city head-on and splits into two branches. The word Fen is a homonym for the word “separation” in Chinese. The superstitious Cantonese then added the radical for “water” to the character of Fen to dilute its inauspicious meaning. To Foshan natives, the descendants of fishermen and farmers, water is wealth.
Yet, standing by the river for the first time as a child, I would never have guessed that Fen, once gave Foshan fame as one of the four most reputable Chinese towns from the 14th to the 19th century. The river in front of me was pitch-black, filled with industrial sludge and covered by oil slicks. No life existed in it. A few fishing boats floated aimlessly along the river. I wondered why they were even there.
Without the bustling riverbanks and the quivering shades of the centuries-old Banyan trees, the river was no different than a large, open-air sewer. What was once the artery of the city had become a vein of thick, deoxygenated waste ready to clog at any time. I called out to my father, who was walking along the stony riverbank looking for any signs of life, that the stench was unbearable. He asked me to wait a minute. “Perhaps I can find a crab or something,” he said. His voice muffled by the endless stream of motorbikes that ran along the river. “I’m not going to eat it!” I replied angrily while hoping that my recalcitrance wouldn’t bar me from future explorations like this.
Working as a medical school teacher and a dentist, my father, along with my mother, were some of the first interstate migrants that settled in Guangdong following the fall of the Berlin Wall. The turmoil of the Tiananmen Square protests had just begun to die down. My father was thoroughly disenchanted by the endless political disturbances. He watched his own students defy his earnest advice, leave his class to protest, and face mass arrests in his hometown Wuhan, once known for the Wuchang Uprising that catalyzed the overthrow of the last Chinese imperial dynasty. Like the seasonal birds fleeing the chills of the winter, my father traveled south to the calm, yet burgeoning Guangdong province.
A much-neglected region during the Mao era, Guangdong was designated by the more capitalist-friendly Deng Xiaoping as the lab for economic reform. My parents caught wind of the job opportunities in Foshan, left their former jobs without hesitation, and migrated to the city of Fen and Dongping Rivers. Back in the days, interstate migration was mostly forbidden. Like the Syrian refugees nowadays who manage to cross the sea of paper work and the barriers of extreme vetting to land in the United States, my parents were the lucky ones.
When my parents first arrived in Foshan, Fen River was the livelier twin brother of Dongping. Fishing boats from all around the Pearl River Delta rested along its banks. Ferries were transporting tradespeople and visitors between Guangzhou and Foshan as roads were a hassle to travel on, trains were expensive, and highways were non-existent. Several markets lined the river, selling fresh fish to satiate the fastidious appetites of the Cantonese eaters. In Guangdong, “fresh” is an indispensable value in its world-famous Yue school of cuisine. Fen River supplied Foshan with boat-loads of fresh food. In a way, it was the giver of the city’s cultural identity. Yet, with the advent of globalization, the city’s mother river was becoming a victim of industrial thrombosis.
My father never found any life on the rocky bank of Fen River that day, with the exception of a few devilish insects that probably fed on the trash scattered there. By the time my father biked me to Dongping River at the edge of the city, the sun had fallen near the horizon, behind the forever-gray haze. The river was silent. There were no boats, motorbikes, or hustling. The only sound was the pattering of my father’s sandals against the loose rocks. I anxiously watched my father maneuver his willowy body over the piercing edges of the river, while twitching the fishing line along the shallow shoals. He tripped and twisted his ankle. I could hear my own heartbeats.
Before I could ask him about his injury, he was towering over me with his hands cupped and his smile brilliantly tender. “See what I got?” In the encroaching darkness and between his warm, callused hands, I saw a little eight-limbed devil waving its dreadful pincers at me.
I never knew that Fen River had long ceased to be the source of water supply for my city. I never knew that its quiet twin, Dongping, was keeping my family and millions of Foshan residents alive. I never knew that the dark, joyless Fen would one day turn green again, after hundreds of millions yuan were invested in cleaning it up. As a four-year-old, all I could see were the black color of Fen and the white of Dongping. All I loved and hated were the pale hands of my father and the sooty small crab.
“The River Flows in Me” represents the flow of memories, ours and that of our hometowns. Water comes and goes. Most memories leave, but some stay. That sedimentation is us. As we burrow into the warm, muddy riverbed, we will unravel ourselves, one handful after another.
Shi, Yi is a writer, or at least he will be. He studies environmental management at Yale, or is it writing? He loves words, or what lie beneath and between them.